Threatened Wildlife Right at Home – California

Now, when you usually think of endangered species, what locations do you imagine? The Amazon Rainforest, the African Savannah, perhaps the jungles of India, or the misty bamboo-clad mountains of China are what most people imagine.

While those locations may hold some of the world’s famous and charismatic endangered wildlife, there are still many areas that are very under-represented, and deserve more conservation effort than they are currently getting. Take for example the Panoche Valley, an arid expanse of grassland and saltbrush plains in a remote region of Central California. It’s home to a number of wonderful, little-known rarities: Giant Kangaroo Rats, Tulare Grasshopper Mice, San Joaquin Antelope Squirrels, Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizards, San Joaquin Kit Foxes, and Mountain Plovers to name a few.

Let me first begin by stating directly that some rats, mice, squirrels, and lizards will never capture the attention of the world like Jaguars, Cheetahs, Lions, Elephants, Rhinos, Tigers, or Pandas. But then again, the whole reason behind this blog is to also raise attention to those species that are less represented, and perhaps give them a chance too… On the Monday of October 28 (a long weekend for me), I visited the Panoche Valley for my fifth time, to experience its remote beauty and perhaps catch a glimpse of some of its most special inhabitants.

I first visited this amazing valley in December 2011, and having spent half a day searching for wildlife and completely failing, I nearly vowed never to go back again, and decided that maybe a rather hasty Solar Farm development isn’t such a bad thing in this precious place: one that I back then mistakenly assumed was lifeless. I returned again in October 2012 to give the valley a second chance, and it delivered: a fabulous sighting of a Bobcat and my first glimpse of a San Joaquin Kit Fox were all I needed to realize how special this region truly is.

Now for my trip… I had an amazing time: I saw a San Joaquin Kit Fox, a Prairie Falcon, two Giant Kangaroo Rats, and best of all, my first ever American Badger, which ran alongside a fenceline just under seven feet away from our car, giving mind-blowing views! This trip, more than any other, made me realize that this place wasn’t just the site of another controversial project: it was one with a special place in my heart and many others’, all who realize the impact it may have and wildlife it may endanger. So ultimately, perhaps the lesson from this is not only that we need to put more effort into thoughtfully designing our infrastructure projects, but also that there are plenty of endangered species that deserve more attention than they’re currently getting and need help. Species like those in the Panoche Valley, a place known by few even in the San Francisco Bay Area.

UPDATE: On a recent visit to Panoche Valley on November 29, 2013, I observed an American Badger right at dusk as well as what was most likely a San Joaquin Kit Fox. This has been the best year for mammals, particularly Badger, ever in the Panoche Valley since I started visiting several years ago – perhaps the exceptionally dry weather is playing a part.

So perhaps spend a few minutes of the day reading about the plight of many lesser-known species too along with Rhinos, Cheetahs, and Elephants: maybe the Mala, Slender Loris, Angwantibo, or Uakari. It’s not just Polar Bears, Tigers, and Lions that are endangered…plenty more species that you’ll discover are just as charismatic need our help. Perhaps more-so than any other, that’s the lesson that the Panoche Valley has taught me.


Trying to see a Bobcat?

I’m sure many of you known that cats are among the most difficult of all mammal families to observe in the wild… I’ve got plenty of personal experience here too, having tried and failed to see a number of them: African Wildcat and Caracal in Ndutu, Tanzania; Canadian Lynx in Denali NP, Alaska; and Mountain Lion in Central California and Torres del Paine NP in Patagonia. I’m aware that many are even having trouble finding what I believe is probably the easiest of the ‘Northern Cats’ to see (ie: Eurasian Lynx, Canada Lynx, etc. – a notoriously difficult bunch), the awesome Bobcat. Here are some tips to maximize your chances.

1. Go California! It’s simple – there’s no other place on Earth where your chances to see Bobcats are as good as in California. Out of this whole state though, 2 spots stand out to me: Coalinga/Los Gatos Creek Road and Pierce Point Road in Pt Reyes National Seashore.

Coalinga/Los Gatos Road: 

– Coalinga road might just be the best place in the world to see Bobcats. It’s a pretty lonely road running through the Inner Central Coast Range in Fresno and San Benito Counties. Starting in Coalinga, it winds along Los Gatos Creek and the San Benito River until arriving at highway 25, providing some great wildlife viewing opportunities along the way. Best of all, there is a simply huge number of Bobcats crawling in the foothills through which this road passes

– Bobcats in particular are often seen along the whole length, with Hernandez Valley being one particularly prolific area for sightings (around the Hernandez Reservoir).

– On an average day (6 AM-6 PM), you should be able to see 3-6 bobcats and photograph 1-2; I’ve heard of people seeing up to 9 in a day on this road – I don’t think can ever be matched let alone beaten anywhere else in the world (even Pt Reyes!); on a morning or evening drive, you can safely expect to see 1-3 Bobcats on this stretch; I’ve heard of people who have seen kittens here too – this road is a great spot for Bobcat photography for this interested

– It’s also a good road for other wildlife; if you drive it, you can safely expect to see California Ground Squirrels, Desert Cottontails, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, Mule Deer, and Coyotes; if you’re lucky, you might see Tule Elk near Hernandez Reservoir, where there is a reintroduced herd; I know of people who have seen species as rare as Badgers and Pronghorn here (mostly in the Hernandez Valley), but they are quite tricky

• When to look: the best seasons are about late October to early April, which November to February being best

• Positives: a very good, predictable place to see Bobcats; there are LOTS of them and they are rather photogenic too; weather will be decent at this time of the year and rain and hazardous driving conditions won’t be too much of a problem; pretty rangeland scenery and very quiet and remote

• Negatives: the road is VERY remote and really out in the middle of nowhere – you should know what you’re doing; if you’re a little unnerved by the area and remoteness, try taking  Amwestphoto’s ‘Bobcat Safaris’ which travel this road in late fall, winter and early spring; no accommodation/visitor facilities; no good hiking easily accessible with marked trails, etc – pretty much limited to road

Point Reyes

• The best area is Pierce Point Road on the Tomales Peninsula; it’s a pretty nice road that winds through pastures and brushland, and is a lovely drive in spring or winter. It runs through some scenic pastures and farmlands, which contain enormous densities of gophers. For this reason, it’s a great road for predators such as Bobcats and Coyotes. Even Long Tailed Weasels and American Badgers, normally quite rare, are not uncommon here, though spotting them is a different story and still quite difficult.

• Your best chances will be from November to April

• Drive slowly early in the morning or late in the afternoon and evening and scan the pastures and grasslands for signs of movement; on an average day (both morning and evening spent), you should see at least 1 Bobcat if weather conditions are decent/not bad. It’s a great road for wildlife photography, and even if you don’t see a Bobcat, you’ll certainly see other nice stuff and come back happy either way.

• This is a great road for Black Tailed Deer, Brush Rabbit, Coyote, Tule Elk, and Black Tailed Jackrabbit and you should see all of them; it’s also not bad for Long Tailed Weasel (the end around Abbott’s Lagoon and Tomales Point are particularly good) and one of the better places in California for American Badger (tricky the whole way!)

• Pros: Probably edges out Coalinga Rd in terms of diversity and quality of sightings of other animals (closeness, prolonged) not including bobcats; more scenic and access to nice hiking trails – you’ll be able to get out more (Coalinga runs through private property); not as remote and in a national park with nice accommodation and good facilities/visitor center; the road surface is better than Coalinga Rd

• Cons: If you just want to see a Bobcat, it’s probably not as good and not as predictable; it’s really only a good weather drive; if there’s even a sign of rain or low fog/mist, don’t attempt it as you won’t see anything aside from the guaranteed elk – real risk of bad weather in Winter/early Spring, so you need to be prepared to skip trips at the last minute and reschedule as weather can keep you from seeing anything – besides, the road can get dangerous! Also, you’ll see quite a few people – on Coalinga Rd, you won’t see another soul so this might diminish the feeling of ‘getting out into the wilderness’

Good luck and happy searching!